Sacramento, CA – As California continues to address the growing threat of deadly wildfire disasters, more comprehensive approaches are beginning to get their due.
Back in March, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on wildfires in order to expedite forest-thinning projects and other programs, as reported here. His action built upon those of former Governor Jerry Brown, who called for doubling the amount of forestland treated each year by 2023. The state also significantly increased its related expenditures.
This week, national reporting by Associated Press and partner outlets is focusing on multi-prong efforts and approaches, policy trends, and proposed legislation in the works to address wildfire safety that extend beyond forest management and clearing defensible space. Among the areas addressed is how to make homes in higher fire hazard areas safe.
Fire disasters in 1980 and 1991 mandated the Department of Fire Protection and Forestry to begin mapping the state’s major fire risk areas and severity zones established based on terrain, vegetation, weather patterns, and other factors. Tighter building standards followed as state lawmakers passed legislation requiring fire-resistant roofs in these areas.
In 2008, the California Building Standards Commission rolled out Chapter 7A regulations that set strict rules for roofing, siding, windows, decks, and other materials for new homes. Still, many jurisdictions were able to set up looser local requirements.
A Focus On Fire-Safe Homes
In the wake of the state’s most recent deadly wildfires, experts interviewed stated that these regulations seem to be working in that they are protecting structures from the aggressive, windswept wildfires that are becoming more common.
Cal Fire estimates as many as three million homes across the state are located in fire hazard severity zones; a daunting number when considering potential retrofit measures. While it is impossible to know, it is probable that a majority of these residences existed before the tighter building regulations went into effect in 2008, especially in rural areas where new housing construction lags and fire hazards are generally worse.
Before he left office, Brown ordered the state fire marshal to develop a suggested list of “low-cost retrofits”’ by next January for the state to promote through education and outreach efforts.
In other related moves, while the state currently offers no financial incentives to retrofit older homes for fire safety, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Santa Rosa introduced AB 38 in the wake of the deadly Camp Fire. It seeks to create a $1 billion revolving loan fund to help homeowners retrofit their properties, offering low- and no-interest loans to help those who cannot otherwise pay for new roofs and other fire-safe improvement work.
Cal Fire is now also in the process of updating its fire hazard maps to incorporate data on wind and other climate factors. Once the maps are complete, any area that falls inside a designated “very high fire”’ zone will be mandated to comply with state building codes under another bill Brown signed into law last year.